Hawaii Theatre – a visitor primer

Hawaii Theatre Exterior
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We made a trip to the Hawaii Theatre Centre with some of the HAT Blog ohana recently and I was struck anew by the splendor of the 100-year-old edifice and its remarkable history as the “Pride of the Pacific”, named as such by the papers here and abroad at the time of its September 1922 opening. I’ve been there many times, and I felt silly when I realized I’ve never written about it here. It’s a wonderful destination for Oahu visitors who love the arts and history.  

The glorious (and once nearly doomed) old theater is a lavish venue with Neoclassical architecture and sophisticated design elements that include nods to Byzantine, Corinthian, and Moorish influences. I didn’t know that as a kid, when I’d walk past it with a calabash uncle on excursions to seedy Chinatown-in-the-seventies for afternoons spent in shabby, smoke-filled cinemas that featured countless kung fu movies of the time.

Hawaii Theater view from balcony.
Pre-curtain at Hawaii Theatre Center.

Hawaii Theatre history, briefly

In its heyday, the Hawaii Theatre hosted vaudeville greats and screened Hollywood blockbusters. That’s before Honolulu’s population grew and spread out into the still expanding suburbs. Most of Honolulu’s, erm, mainstream cinematic entertainment moved to Waikiki. Hawaii Theatre’s (and Chinatown’s) illustrious past is well documented by scholars and historians. And Google and Wikipedia.

The Hawaii Theatre (yes, that’s how they spell it) saw some darkened days and closed in 1984. Chinatown had gotten plainly (more) dangerous over the years. A group of its pipe organ volunteers got together (or hui-ed up, as we say) to create a nonprofit that would spare it from demolition. A years-long and fruitful fundraising effort over the ensuing years saw the Hawaii Theatre renovated and reopened in 1996. Some old-timers, cough, might argue that its revitalization was key to the revitalization of Chinatown into the Honolulu Chinatown Arts District. There are dozens of dining and shopping and strolling options within a couple of blocks.

Hawaii Theatre seating.
Hawaii Theatre, not a bad seat in the house.

Hawaii Theatre today

The Hawaii Theatre Centre is now on the State and National Registry of Historic Places. It is once again a world-class performance venue and cinema. It was named the “Outstanding Historic Theatre in America” by the League of Historic America Theatres in 2005 and has since received other similar awards from other highbrow civic organizations. As a performer, I can say that I would love to play there. It reminds me of San Francisco’s venerable Fillmore Auditorium and other old theaters on the mainland that I actually have played in.

This recent trip to Hawaii Theatre was to attend a children’s performance of the energetic musical Disney Alladin Junior. It’s jealously protected Disney intellectual property, so no pics here. (Ain’t poking that bear.) We were there in support of a gaggle of calabash nieces and nephews, my friends’ kids, who also happen to be acting students of my younger sister. (There’s a reason we call it the “HAT Blog Ohana”.) I’ve seen several brilliant performances there. This may have been the best among them (no offense meant to Eddie Vedder, David Sedaris, and various others).

Hawaii Theatre marquis

Amazingly at a kids’ show, and thankfully for a high percentage of the parents/adults in the theater, the bar on the second level was open for business. The fact that Hawaii Theatre’s bar offers a reusable spill-proof wine cup was a revelation. “Wait, does this mean that twenty bucks gets me an adult sippy cup with a cocktail in it?” I asked. Yep, it does.

“Adult sippy cup,” the auntie behind me cackled. “That’s perfect! I’m totally getting one.” She looked at the toddler holding her hand. “You have one already.” I must say that the adult sippy cup is brilliant merchandising. Well done, Hawaii Theatre Centre! Spill proof or not, I kept it between my feet as the cast of young stars-in-the-making darted and danced past my second-row aisle seat during raucous song and dance numbers. Thanks, Sis!

Hawaii Theatre stage.
Almost time to light the lights at the Hawaii Theatre Center.

A host of scheduled performers at Hawaii Theatre were cancelled or postponed by the pandemic. The Hawaii Theatre Center is making up for that lost time (and revenue) with a busy calendar of performances that already stretches into the summer of 2024. Chances are that you can book tickets for a worthwhile performance by a famous local, national, or international performer or ensemble during any Oahu vacation. Famous names in comedy, multiple music genres, storytelling, and other performing arts will flash along the electronic marquis in the months ahead.

Check the Hawaii Theatre Center website for upcoming shows. Book your seats. And get the adult sippy cup.